The Reformation, Gospel, and Good Works

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 29th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (Year A, Proper 25). 

Continuing our conversation on 1 Thessalonians from last week, we read of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s care for this early community. As disciplers, we see them leading by example, reaffirming the values of the movement.

Last week we spoke of the call to discipleship, and this week we continue that reflection as a call to a communal ethic.

Stanley Hauerwaus claimed, that whenever we talk about the church we’re talking about ethics, and vice versa. Whenever we talk about ethics we’re talking about the church. Because, the gospel message is an embodied message—embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, embodied in the lives of his disciples, and in his church.

What does the oldest piece of Christian writing tell us about the ethics of this early movement?

Well, we that it was brought to Thessalonica, as a God-centered gospel, which we could also call an “other-centred” or “self-less” gospel. We read that is not built on pride or greed.

And, we read that is a gospel that doesn’t rely on manipulative messaging, instead on a truthful representation of the character of God.

It is a gospel of tenderness which includes this image, I love so dearly: The image of middle-aged grumpy Paul and his friends, describing themselves as “wet-nurses” whose concern for their own children is so markedly different. A more modern analogy might be that of a daycare worker, whose compassion and tenderness is different with their own children than the kids they work with—it is more intimate. Intimacy is a quality we talked about last week—the intimacy between disciplee and discipler.

Continuing in that vein, there is also a sense of the vulnerability of this gospel, where people share this embodied message by revealing their very selves. A gospel of intimacy and vulnerability.

Paul teaches us that you cannot share the gospel without sharing yourself; it then follows that we cannot be the church, we cannot embody the message, without sharing how it has transformed us—as individuals and a collective.

This summer, the theme at the Rendez-Vous (national youth) gathering was, from our New Creed, to “Be the Church”.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

We have a complicated history, where more often than not it seems like we have proclaimed a message of exclusion, of colonization, of selectivity, of damnation, and shame. We have definitely been on the wrong side of history, as a community.

Bonhoeffer wrote that “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Bonhoeffer was writing in a time when the church was complicit, or at the very least apathetic, about the atrocities taking place in Germany and across Europe through national socialism. He spoke of a gospel message, a message of grace, that demanded its adherents profess its truth in actions as well as words. His theology, which started in grace, demanded the church get political, get involved in conversations about ethics, and hold one another accountable for their actions—he saw the embodiment of the Gospel in, what he called, the Confessing Church.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

Before The Enlightenment, religiosity had very little to do with what you believed, and a whole lot to do with how you acted. Faith was based on your piety or right-living—it was demonstrative instead of conceptual.

Today is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday we’ve chosen to mark the 500th year since the Reformation that split the Catholic church into the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. One of the big things that caused the split was the issue of salvation through faith alone. Protestantism rejected the idea that it was faith and good works that ensure our salvation, opting instead for “simple grace”.

However, Pew Forum has surveyed protestants across North America and discovered that, after 500 years, these two parts of our church are more similar than different. Pew Forum reports that 52% of American Protestants agreed that “Both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven.”

Now, I’m not saying that salvation through faith alone isn’t true or an important Protestant concept, I’ll leave that up to your own reflection, but I think as a community we’ve discovered that faith that isn’t demonstrated is hollow.

James 2:14-17 says: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

How do we demonstrate that we are followers of Jesus, our perfect example? A man who called us to care, to clothe, to speak up, and to seek justice?

How do we proclaim the grace that God has extended to us, and show the incredible ways in which God has transformed us? Last we spoke of a message of liberation, so what does it mean to live a liberated life?

Well, if you’re looking for answers, don’t ask me. I can only tell you the ways I feel called to embody the message that was handed down to me. So, I want you to turn to your neighbour, and share for a few minutes.

Get a little vulnerable, and ask one another…

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

The community shared in discussion for five minutes, and then we concluded by singing “What Does the Lord Require of You”.

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